Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Random Musings on Gaming and Spirituality

I started playing RPGs in the late 80s with Champions 1st Edition, a gift from my oldest brother. Before that I would check out the old Advanced Dungeons and Dragons books from the library and read through them. Sometimes I would play the Dungeon board game or make a card game using the classic classes, but I didn't actually make a character and play until that first Wolverine clone I made back when I was about ten or eleven. By the time university had rolled around I had mostly played 1st and 2nd edition D&D and picked up games like Dragon Strike, with its cheesy video, or Hero Quest. I'd started my ten years of Amtgard LARPing, broken my front teeth being hit in the face with a panicked boffer sword, and started spending tons of money on Magic the Gathering. However, I had also picked up the World of Darkness games and written one of the first pieces of fanfiction in the form of a story mixing elements of Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, and Wraith.

It might seem a bit stereotypical that I was the teenager drawn to the edgy monster games where you got to whine and be angsty and bemoan your existence, but to be honest that has never really been of interest to me. Angst that does not resolve is boring and quickly just becomes passive-aggressive moaning while doing nothing to correct the problem at hand. That said, I do like characters that start broken and maybe even self-hating. In general, my goal is mature them or heal them to the point of self-acceptance. The vampiric myth of Gehenna was perfectly representative of this for me.

Many, though not all, of my characters in my teens and twenties were religious in some form or fashion, most likely an echo of the fact that I myself have been a believer in God throughout my life. In modern settings this usually was some form of Christianity or similar monotheism. My vampires had True Faith, my werewolves were often Children of Gaia, and my mages were often of the Celestial Chorus. Come Scion, I created a police markswoman and daughter of Hades who was a devout Catholic convinced that the mythical gods of the various pantheons were just greater spirits than mortals some were angels in service to God, others were devils, but most were just sort of there without choosing a side. I find it hard now to speak to what I might have believed at the time and do labor under the impression that these days I have more mature and deep beliefs and understandings. I suppose I was using RPGs to help me explore my spirituality.

These days my non-religious characters, as in the matter of their beliefs is never brought up or commented on, probably outnumber my religious ones, though the religious ones continue to trend toward Christiantiy for the simple fact that I grew up with that religion and am strangely more comfortable messing around with its centuries' worth accumulation of dogma. I do have less of that "chosen by God" concept of my youth, however. Likely due to my belief in a non-interventionist deity and the idea that we, as beings, were not given free will just so we can ask somebody else to fix our mistakes.

When I encounter beings in games traditionally labeled as gods, like Mystra or Eilistraee, I tend to view them as leaders, employers, allies, spiritual guides, and possibly ancestors but still as entities with limits and some degree of mortality. Someone my characters may owe fealty to or share a common goal with and who is in a position to grant my character the ability to advance that common goal or ethos. For my mind, a soul is a soul is a soul regardless of what temporal or supernatural power that soul might have at its command.

Something that has occured to me is how much reality is biased toward cooperation and compassion. A number of people who deny evolution or challenge the idea of survival of fittest like to talk about how survival of the fittest would encourage people to murder, rape, and perform other such atrocities, focusing on the application of the concept on an individual basis and seeing it as permission for a strong person to do whatever they want. But looking at the world overall, if survival of the fittest really worked that way it would be things like tigers that dominated the world. Instead, it is humans that dominate.

Because we have historically been willing to put ourselves at risk to protect others of our kind we have been able to reproduce in greater and greater numbers. Due to our great numbers, we have increased the chances of giving birth to a genius who discovers how to tame fire, build a wheel, cultivate crops, preserve information in writing, cure diseases, create flying machines and produce wonderful pieces of art. Each of these things adds to the next generation's ability to thrive. Societies that have allowed their advancement to stagnate or even suppressed advancement have grown obsolete and eventually fell apart. Societies of rampant racism or other bigotry suppress or even slaughter segments of their population, which, in turn, reduces the chances of that incredible breakthrough occurring and advancing the society ahead of others.

Intellectually speaking, this has everything to do with logic and is hardly proof of God, I know. Cooperation is a force-multiplier making effort double and re-double but cooperation is equally able to magnify atrocity as it is able to magnify benevolence. Granted, the following generations will be weaker for the loss of numbers even if the members of the society manage to convince themselves they are stronger for having rid themselves of undesirables.

A lot of this can be seen in the mythology of the World of Darkness and the Chronicles of Darkness. The great Triad of the Wyrm, the Weaver, and the Wyld start to break down when they cease cooperating. Most of the apocalypse scenarios could have been subverted if various groups in the World of Darkness simply talked to each other and stopped trying to kill each other. It's in the Assassin's Creed storyarch too, where Assassins and Templars spend so much time fighting and killing each other that they fail to use the Pieces of Eden for their intended purpose of teaching humanity and devising a solution for a potential danger.

A lot of people might find this ridiculous and tell me that the Garou and the Kindred are simply inimical to each other and must fight, but really there is nothing to support that. In fact, the whole cyclical nature of the world from paradise to apocalypse and back could be read in the way cooperation, compassion, and communication break down to the point that things fall apart. With the cycle being less a matter of mystical truth and more a simple predictive model based on the understanding of societal development. A post apocalypse setting could see vampires and werewolves forced to work together for survival's sake with the stage of paradise approaching as supernatural power is more commonly approached with wisdom and consideration rather than selfishness and recklessness. Eventually, the wise will fall and those that take up their mantle do less well such that the downward spiral to apocalypse begins again.

In Chronicles of Darkness there is even less reason for why the different groups should need to fight. There is no overhanging prophecy of apocalypse driving the story forward, and, in general the various templates usually keep to themselves. Vampires have vampire things to deal with and werewolves have werewolf things, such that neither group really cares or thinks much about the other group. It is primarily a horror setting because the groups are so isolated from each other and even the most knowledgeable groups are buried in a mountain of ignorance, aided by the fact that every splatbook or setting information for either CoD or WoD is an unreliable narrator showing only the most commonly accepted beliefs of how the world works according to the group described in that particular book.

By increasing the avenues of communication, the setting becomes more of an urban fantasy where the general public doesn't know about the supernatural and the various supernatural groups compete or grudgingly cooperate to deal with threats like the True Fae, the Atlantean Exarchs, or the God Machine. A couple steps past that and you can easily shift the setting to one of municipal fantasy where the supernatural is public knowledge and there are laws in place regulating it and werewolves work with Thryus mages to monitor spirit activity and Sin-Eaters are used as diplomats for speaking to the realms of the underworld. This can be a relatively stable world where the major threats are on the fringes, or it can be a world under siege by one of the many vast threats provided by Onyx Path.

Cooperation, communication, and compassion are key. All the various groups; from sleepers to vampires and werewolves to sin-eaters; would benefit from working together and because they don't, the world is a terrible place where predators stalk among the civilized of all kinds and those in power mostly horde that power for their own purposes rather than bend it to the good of all. This is again logical. The game and setting were created by human beings and thus it would obvious mirror the way things work in real life but that's rather my point. In the game setting, cooperation and communcation between factions could easily result in the solution of problems and the majority of existing problems spring from consistent refusal to communicate or tolerate the others.

This exploration is somewhat more troubling in Dungeons and Dragons. For example, it is said in the recent edition that a fiend is always evil and that if it stopped being evil that it would cease to be a fiend. The outer planes are made from the solidified essences of order, chaos, good, and evil as defined by the game. These essences mix with the elemental essences in order to create the Prime Material Plane and the matter that occurs there. Unlike in White Wolf/Onyx Path games where the nature of good and evil is mostly in found in the choices made by the characters, these concepts have actual physical existence in the default D&D setting.

My problem with this is that from my perspective, which has all the authority of being a random guy on the internet who thinks about this stuff too much, evil and good by necessity require the presence of choice. If you don't have a choice then you aren't really good or evil, you're just a machine driven by programming. As such, if a fiend has to be evil then it has no choice and by my thought it is thus not really a living entity but just some sort of programmed thing which appears to have free will. The celestials suffer from the same problem. But I thought back on that statement about the fiend: if a fiend ceases to be evil, it is no longer a fiend.

That's a conditional and implies to some degree that the first is possible. So assume that the reality can cause some attitudes and philosophies to be psychically manifested in physical seeming form, the soul within that form is still a soul possessing of choice. The marilith, succubus, balor, pit-fiend, erinyes, or other such fiend could, conceivably begin to behave in a less evil fashion, but doing so would actually alter the physical make up of their bodies. A marilith that becomes less and less evil, might retain the same appearance that it had as a demon but it's inherent nature might grow to be more like the slaadi or some other denizen of the chaos of limbo. It might even replace that evil with elemental forces and become an entity of fire or earth. Also there is at least one instance in official WotC releases of a succubus becoming a Lawful Good paladin via love for a celestial and there are more than instances of a celestial falling and becoming a fiend.

By and large, the fiction of the angel, or similar entity, falling and becoming evil is more common in RPGs because most of the time the main characters are going to be the players and thus major heroic arcs are going to be there doing somehow. If a marilith eventually joins the hosts of Celestia, it will likely be due to the actions of the characters rather than a predetermined part of the campaign. The good entities that the characters run across will likely be focused on other concerns or bound by mysterious laws or limits. They might be doing things off screen that are far more important to the world but unimportant to the actual story being told. Even then, their off screen activities are usually a sort of status quo which will be upset once the players get to high enough level to involve themselves.

There is also a tendency in people to assume that evil or dark characters have more depth than good ones. This may be due to the impression that evil characters are somehow more independent because they are behaving in ways normally frowned upon. There is an idea that a lot of good characters are simply blind sheep who do as they are told without thought while evil characters are misunderstood and oppressed independents. It's a fallacy, of course, most people engaged in criminal or evil behavior aren't any more free or independent of old ideas than anybody else, they're simply expressing their dependence on such concepts in an unusual way. Breaking a rule merely because its a rule is no more free-thinking than following a rule merely because its a rule. Most people don't make use of free will save rarely because it is exhausting. It is much easier and less tiring to simply choose a blanket response to general conditions rather than analyzing each situation at the time and making an actual decision.

Free will is also often difficult to notice because a lot of the times you engage in free will you might end up making the "sheep like" decision anyway. If someone runs around tagging up buildings with grafitti just as a matter of a course because that's what they and their friends do then they are making less of free will than the person who wakes up considers the consequences of calling in sick or going to work that day before getting dressed and heading in to their job. We tend to equate the grafitti artist as the rebel and iconoclast because the social group he's following blindly is much smaller than the general population while the guy who went to work is viewed as a sheep because he ended up choosing to do something that hundreds of thousands of other people will do that day without thinking about it at all. The next day, the worker might get up and by habit go to work without thinking about and the grafitti artist might start wondering about hiring out to businesses to decorate their buildings and then the person using free will reverses.

For my part, I abhor the idea of "always chaotic evil" and hate the idea of "monster races" for the most part. The concept of powers that are inherently evil or good also is something I do not accept though the idea that a particular power may be directly controlled by sentience outside my own is acceptable and understandable. For my mind, if a character makes an interesting NPC then they could make an even more interesting PC. Some games allow for this idea better than others. You're not going to have an easy time playing a dragon character in D&D, you can play a dragon-flavored character in the form of dragon sorcererers and dragonborn, but there's no official way to play an actual dragon and most people would consider any attempt to make a playable dragon to be undesirable with terms like "snowflake" or "munchkin" seeing use. Likewise, you can't really play a god in D&D either. The game is just not set up to play concepts outside those already provided. That said, I always like playing classes and races that are stereotypically evil and playing them as good. They may be grim or they may be somewhat goofy, but I still tend towards what most people would call good regardless of the character or game that I play.

So originally I was going to sit down and talk about what I liked about World of Darkness (Classic Wod) and what I liked about Chronicles of Darkness (NWoD), but it became this rambling mess instead. Oh well, have at it.

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